Monthly Archives: February 2012

Jahan Maka – symbolist or outsider artist?

So what do we make of Maka’s art? Is he “just an outsider”, or should he be judged by more traditional standards?

Art critic, Michael D. Hall, holds Maka in high regard as one of the great symbolists. In fact, he compares Maka to Chagall, with figures floating in a decorative visual field. Both artists derive their symbols from the same fertile fields of Eastern Europe, they resisted western norms, and neither wanted to be “typed.” Hall describes Maka as creating a visual poetry, both imaginative in form and layered in meaning. Because his images are compelling, he argues, they demand a critical assessment and certainly far more than the “romantic/mythic folk art rhetoric” that we apply to Maka and, in fact, all outsider artists. Maka discovered the power of symbols and colour. He came from a culture rooted in storytelling and recounting of myths and, says Hall, he fits nicely into the box with other symbolist artists.

Hall raises an interesting issue.  In our arrogance, we created the myth of the primitive artist and it is our habit to place artists like Maka in that category. He goes into the box of self-taught artists, who are a breed unto themselves, and we label (and perhaps dismiss) him as an outsider. But he deserves more.

For me, there is another question. As I struggle to define the boundaries out outsider art, I have often wondered if the art has to be “good”. Do we allow “junk” to in the outsider art category, just because a self-taught artist created it? I don’t think so. When people wonder why I am interested in art that is just “weird junk”, I answer that when I am wading through the flotsam and jetsam of the outsider art world, I often bump into art that draws me in.  Like Darger, like Bartlett, like Maka. Their understanding of composition is worthy of comparison to any “real” artist who has gained the respect of the art community. Is it intuitive or learned? I don’t know. But everything is where it should be within the confines of a frame. The movement is bang-on, the colours just right, and the voice of the artist is crystal clear. If you don’t hear it right away, you are compelled to stand there until you do.

I saw a documentary once about the Prinzhorn collection in Germany (art from psychiatric patients in the 1920s and 30s). The curator was thankfully candid in his description of the collection. He fully acknowledged that most of the artwork was not much to look at, but once in awhile, you find a “real” artist, who clobbers you over the head with his talent. I wholeheartedly agree. I guess I’m not with those who prize outsider art, whatever is produced. But I am inextricably drawn to those whose fingers spring magic. Like Maka – one of our own.

Canadian outsider artist Jahan Maka

I have made many phone calls and sent a lot of emails during my exploration of Canadian outsider art. One call always leads to another link in the information chain. I was talking with a gallery owner in Victoria, BC, who curated a Scottie Wilson exhibit in Canada many years ago. When I asked her where all the Canadian outsider artists were,  she suggested that I speak with Susan Whitney in Regina, Saskatchewan, as she could tell me about the artist, Jahan Maka (1900 – 1987). It turns out that Susan Whitney knew Maka and represented him in her gallery for many years.

One of Maka’s “black” paintings

I was startled when I first saw images of Maka’s work. They are among the best outsider art pieces that I have admired at international exhibits. The titles are charming, like “Four Rich Farmers and two young girls dancing at the crossroads and the people living in between”. Some are familiar as naïve art pieces, with drawings of zoo animals in the centre of the canvas. Others painted on black backgrounds are magnificent, as in the example shown here. (The photo images are poor, but I was not able to find better ones given the near obscurity of Maka’s life’s work.) The surreal and textured images of people, animals, and buildings cover every inch of the canvas; they are right-side-up, sideways, upside down.  All make you catch your breath and get close to study them.

The Zoo

Who was this remarkable artist?  Jahan Maka was born on a farm in Lithuania in 1900. Although the facts are unclear, his family lost their farm during the First World War, and Maka left for Canada in 1927, hoping to make enough money to return and buy another farm. The Depression thwarted his plans and he worked as a labourer in the Prairie provinces. Sometime before 1937 he anglicized his name to John Thomason (or Thamason, or Thamasson), worked as a miner, and settled in Flin Flon, Manitoba.

His friends recalled him as a bit of a loner, introspective, but sociable with his close circle of friends. Perhaps the most influential person in his life was his godson and artist, Tony Allison. When Maka began painting at age 68, Allison encouraged him and supplied him with art materials whenever he visited. Without professional art supplies, Maka improvised with products like commercial enamels, airplane paint thinned with lighter fluid, appliance touch-up paint, wax crayons, and carpenter’s chalk.  He rebuilt worn paint brushes with hairs from his own moustache and painted on walls or doors of his apartment when he ran out of canvas.  Motifs that he wanted to recreate, like forests, were carved from wood or linoleum and stamped onto the canvas or board. The effect is gorgeous.

Art critic, Michael Hall, describes Maka as a Canadian Chagall. Why aren’t we celebrating this Canadian treasure?